Capitol Hill Book Buying, December 2013

Yesterday afternoon I drove up to Capitol Hill in the damn freezing cold to take a look at science books at Ada’s Technical Books. It’s been a while since I’ve been up on 15th Avenue — in the late 90s my wife and I lived on 18th (around the corner from the Singles apartment building) and 15th was our main drag. We’d eat at Coastal Kitchen and Hopscotch (where I first tried spaetzle, igniting a powerful love affair that later carried me through many a winter night in Germany) and rent VHS movies at On 15th Video, and browse used books at Horizon Books. But once our son was born — at Group Health on 15th Ave, right down the street — we moved to Queen Anne and we’ve been here ever since.

9781848310872-532x760Sadly, Hopscotch has been gone for years now; meanwhile, Ada’s just recently moved into the spot where Horizon Books used to be. It’s pretty swank — they replaced the charming but rickety old house that Horizon was in with a fancy, white, high-ceilinged building that includes a cafe in addition to the bookstore. They don’t have a huge selection but I did find Introducting Fractals, which is in the same series as the book on quantum theory that I read last month. It looks like it’s right up my son’s alley, since he digs learning about hidden mathematical patterns in the world around us. So a good find for Christmas.

I also stopped at Twice Sold Tales — the commentor MKUltra over at Science Fiction Ruminations mentioned it — and made a few good finds.

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I read Galaxies Like Grains of Sand back in college — it was my first Aldiss, and I’ve been a fan ever since. TheGreenManLooking forward to a re-read there. The Green Man is described on the back cover as “a violent, fast-paced novel of ancient Britain — a brutal land steeped in wizardry, revenge and sinister superstitions” (but apparently not steeped in the Oxford comma). I read Treece’s Viking saga a few years ago and enjoyed it without actually retaining a single detail of it, which I would argue is probably the purest sort of reading experience. In the moment! This one has a cover of unsurpassed awesomeness — if I were the big green guy I wouldn’t be turning my back to that sultry half-dressed lady with the shiv. Treece wrote a ton of historical Britain-based fiction that skirted the divide between kids’ fiction and adults’, which is a sub-sub-sub-genre I have a real weakness for (another writer in that sub-sub-sub-genre is the magnificent Rosemary Sutcliff).

pavaneKeith Roberts is criminally under-appreciated. Most folks know Pavane, which got a re-release last year bearing the classic Leo and Diane Dillon cover from the original Ace Science Fiction Specials edition. But for my money The Chalk Giants is a better book, or at least a more vital one. It’s easy to see why Pavane is held in such high esteem: it’s decorous and stately, like its title dance, and it shows a classic “literariness” in its restraint and careful structure. But The Chalk Giants is an ambitious, shamanistic mess — or at least appears to be a mess, until at the end it resolves perfectly into a survey of human culture at its roots. Pavane is Tolstoy and The Chalk Giants is Dostoevsky.

The Furies, meanwhile, is about giant insects swarming over Britain after a nuclear holocaust, so I’m not sure where that’d slot in with the Russian writers analogy. Gogol, probably.

mervyn-peakeThe last two are, hopefully, a treat. I haven’t yet read Mervyn Peake and didn’t even know until a few weeks ago that his Gormenghast trilogy was published in a set of Penguin Modern Classics. So it was a real treat to look up at the new arrivals shelf and see these two sitting there. Unfortunately, they only had the first and third books of the set, Titus Groan and Titus Alone. so I’ll have to keep looking for the second volume, Gormenghast proper.

Of all the Penguins, the Modern Classics from the ’60s and ’70s are my absolute favorites, with their sea-green spines (though as I mentioned before, I prefer the pre-Facetti era) and it’s hard to resist buying them no matter the title.

I passed on buying a few books, carrying them around the store until the end before replacing them on the shelves: Geoffrey Household’s freaky Dance of the Dwarfs (which I’ve read already but no longer own, and would like to) and a pair of Horatio Hornblower novels in the orange-spined Penguin editions from the 70s. I read the first Hornblower book a few years back and enjoyed it, as well as Forester’s Death to the French and his cannon-as-protagonist novel The Gun. So at some point I’d like to read more Hornblower, but I couldn’t quite pull the trigger on these two.

Penguin Horror

9780143122326HAs I’ve mentioned before, I’m a true Penguin fanatic, as much for their cover designs over the years as for their editorial sensibility. So the covers for the new Penguin Horror series (via Boingboing) are right up my alley. I’m a little disappointed that the Frankenstein cover uses the Boris Karloff “square-head” design from the 1931 film — granted it’s iconic, but it’s not Mary Shelley’s depiction of the creature at all. (Incidentally, Chris Priestley’s Mister Creecher is a fantastic meta-fiction on the creature, unsurprisingly dark and sophisticated given Priestley’s other super-creepy books for kids.)

But the other covers are all dynamite. Especially horrifying is Lovecraft’s Thing on the Doorstep, emerging from the muck in all its crusty carp-man malevolence.

Turtle Diary

chelonia_mydasThe American expatriate author Russell Hoban was the real deal, an utterly non-derivative talent who followed his own quirky muse from the children’s stories of his earlier career (including the excellent The Mouse and His Child, which I’ve described as a sunnier version of The Road, except it’s for kids, and it features mice, and it contains no apocalypse, catamites, cooked babies, etc.) to the challenging novels like Kleinzeit and Pilgermann and the magnificent Riddley Walker. Hoban died in 2011; from what I can tell, no one has yet written a biography of him, but I’d gladly read one (or, if I had that sort of ambition, write one). His life had just enough outward bustle, with service in World War II and a wrenching midlife divorce and migration to London, to provide background for an exploration into the intriguing interior life he pours out onto the page.

It’s typical of Hoban that he begins a novel entitled Turtle Diary with, not a turtle, but an octopus. One of the two narrators (actually diarists, both in their mid-40s), the divorced bookshop assistant William G., visits the London Zoo in a vain attempt to see an octopus after an unsettling dream — but once there, he ends up fascinated by a different inmate:

Sea turtles. Two or three hundred pounds the big ones must have weighed. Looping and swinging, flying in golden-green silty water in a grotty little tank no bigger than my room. Soaring, dipping and curving with flippers like wings in a glass box of second-hand ocean. Their eyes said nothing, the thousands of miles of ocean couldn’t be said.

Turtle Diary Cover.inddAnother lonely soul, Neaera H., is an author tired of writing children’s books about animals (Gillian Vole’s Jumble Sale, Delia Swallow’s Housewarming, etc.). She too is led to the zoo by an animal other than turtles, wanting to see oyster-catchers “[walking] with their heads down, looking as if they had hands clasped behind their backs like little European philosophers in yachting gear.” Slowly, elliptically, William and Neaera find each other, their preoccupations circling toward an impulse neither of them can quite explain or feel comfortable with: to free the sea turtles from the zoo back into the open ocean.

The story that follows is neither a tension-drenched jailbreak — the release of the turtles isn’t even the climax of the story, inasmuch as there is any climax at all — nor is it a romance between two lonely middle-aged people brought together by a noble cause. Instead it’s a study of humans trying to attain the dignity that animals seem to possess in just being, when just being as a human involves loss, loneliness, regret for missed opportunities and personal shortcomings, and too much being in one’s own head:

Green turtles must have the kind of mind that doesn’t think about sharks unless a shark is there. That must be how it is with them. I can’t believe they’d swim 1,400 miles thinking about sharks. Sea turtles can’t shut themselves up in their shells as land turtles do. Their shells are like tight bone vests and their flippers are always sticking out. Nothing they can do if a shark comes along. Pray. Ridiculous to think of a turtle praying with all those teeth coming up from below.

What liberation William and Neaera do eventually find feels earned and suitably modest, a cautiously negotiated truce with the melancholy inherent in human life. Hoban’s ability to so finely delineate the terms of that truce is what makes him a major artist.

Stray observations:

  • For its depiction of London loneliness, Turtle Diary rivals Patrick Hamilton’s fantastic 1947 novel The Slaves of Solitude, also available in an NYRB edition.
  • Speaking of NYRB, their usual talent for cover selection deserts them here: the painting on the front shows tortoises, not turtles. It’s not a distinction I would normally notice but they clearly have legs rather than flippers.
  • I often find front matter nowadays just depressing — witness Ed Park’s condescending introduction, with its weird mentions of Gillian Flynn, Eminem, and Twitter. Really, introductions are not what they used to be. But Park does point out what I also noticed during reading: this is really a book for people in their 40s. His description of it as “one of the great novels of middle age” is apt.
  • The name Neaera is from Milton’s “Lycidas” — lines 64-69 are quoted:

Alas! What boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair?

According to my Norton Anthology of English Literature the names Amaryllis and Neaera are “conventional names for pretty shepherdesses.” Interesting that one of Hoban’s other novels is called Amaryllis Night and Day and features a character by that name.

  • There’s a 1985 film version featuring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley and written by Harold Pinter; it seems to be the only live-action film based on Hoban’s work (not counting the creditable second act of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome that borrows heavily from Riddley Walker). I quickly checked the journey-to-Polperro scene on YouTube, where the film’s available in its entirety. It’s probably well done for what it is but it doesn’t seem to capture the book very accurately — aside from lacking the texture of London in the 70s so skillfully evoked by Hoban, the scene has William and Neaera driving on the highway in the daytime, smiling and chatting in camaraderie, which is nothing like the night-time drive portrayed in the book. I’ll stick with Hoban’s version.

Bob Pepper and the Dark Tower

As a kid I wasn’t much into electronics or anything remotely resembling video games — it wasn’t until my son pulled me into Minecraft and WoW a few years back that I spent more than a few minutes on one, and in fact just had my ass handed to me in Halo for the very first time last week. But back in 1981, Milton Bradley’s Dark Tower game really had my number.

Sure I loved Orson Welles in the  iconic commercial because what kid doesn’t enjoy watching a massive bearded thespian taking such deep-voiced delight in an electronic board game? But what 10-year-old me really adored about Dark Tower was the stylized, vaguely psychedelic art:

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As a pre-adolescent AD&D fan (albeit one who enjoyed character creation a lot more than the actual gameplay), I loved this stuff. I had always assumed that these were by some unappreciated house artist at Milton Bradley painting in a moment of shroomy inspiration. So I was pretty thrilled to find a site a while back with the name of the artist — Bob Pepper — and even more thrilled to find that he was a well-known SF cover artist in the 70’s and 80’s. A Google image search on his name returns what are quite possibly the coolest search results ever. There’s a whole lot of Philip K. Dick (at first glance more or less Dick’s greatest hits), some Bester and Moorcock and Ellison, a smattering of early high fantasy like Eddison and Peake, as well as a few I’ve never heard of and can’t help but now find intriguing:

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Great stuff. According to Wikipedia, the game was the subject of a lawsuit and disappeared from shelves soon after release. I’m not sure what I did with mine, but I assume it met its fate in an adolescent toy purge. Maybe it stopped working — I really have no memory of getting rid of it. Shame, though.

I hadn’t heard of the card game Dragonmaster that Pepper also did the art for, but the warriors, druids, and nomads featured on the cards are just as gorgeous as the rest of his work.